A home away from home

Updated: 2012-11-16 08:48

By Alicia Xiaoshuang Liu (China Daily)

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Chinatowns are good mirror images of the young, vibrant and confident contemporary China

When I first came to study in the UK I found it exciting and yet daunting, an experience shared by most of the Chinese teenagers venturing abroad. It was the first time I had left home, was independent and living in a multicultural environment, constantly trying to define and re-define my cultural identity.

China, the country I regard as home, and the Chinatowns here in the UK somehow are relevant but different concepts. In many ways Chinatown is like home, but on occasions yet so alien.

There are the obvious geographical differences. Many of the Chinese diaspora who live and work in Chinatown are originally from the southern part of China.

Cantonese is the common language spoken among the people. I will never forget asking for a calling card in Mandarin only to hear the shop assistant reply in perfect English: "I don't speak Mandarin."

It was a strange feeling, because as a Mandarin-speaking foreigner I felt like an outsider in Chinatown. But over the years, I am constantly drawn back to Chinatown as one thing is beyond doubt, I will always have a Chinese stomach.

I am reminded of the old Chinese saying, "To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven."

Although the food served in Chinatown will never taste as authentic as the Chinese meals served back home, we young Chinese are quite content to gather here in Chinatown and enjoy a Chinese meal together. And yet, it is with pride, that we take international and home students for a meal in Chinatown, to introduce them to Chinese culture in familiar surroundings.

Not long after arriving in the UK, the restaurants and supermarkets in Chinatown have grown on us and become household names. It has become a ritual to gather regularly for a meal in Chinatown, both for the older Chinese who call the UK home and for the younger students who have just arrived.

But I have found it difficult to associate with the community who regard Chinatown as home.

For me, my real home is still back in the Far East. When I arrived in the UK, I never imagined that on graduating I would find work trying to bring these two closer together.

Since the turn of the century there has been a significant new wave of students coming from China to study in the UK: 67,000 in 2010-11 alone.

London has become an increasingly popular destination for students, tourists and businesses from China.

In 2006 the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone recognized this and initiated a cultural festival, "China in London", to celebrate the increasing links between London and China.

One of the more ambitious aims of the festival was to refresh the slightly out-of-date image of Chinatown held by the general public in the UK and to increase the profile of Chinatown with the younger generation.

We invited the Chinese pop idol Li Yuchun to jointly open the celebrations with British pop band Girls Aloud.

Following the traditional switching on of the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, the Chinese pop singer Li Yuchun lit the lanterns in Chinatown.

On the outside, it may not seem as if there are many similarities between the two popular cultures, but for the first time since moving to London, I felt more connected with the Chinatown and what it stood for.

I was surprised to find that it actually reminded me of contemporary China - young, vibrant and confident.

Throughout the 10 years I've been in the UK, I have made the transition from being a foreign student to a young professional working in the city.

More recently, I have started to wonder whether I have become a true Londoner.

I was chosen as a London ambassador, serving at Leicester Square - a stone's throw away from Chinatown - during the Olympic Games in summer. I was proud to represent London, but shared a secret smile every time I directed tourists in the direction of Chinatown.

I have witnessed many changes in Chinatown, be they the more visible cosmetic changes or the more subtle geographical shifts in the source of the cuisine - more northern Chinese food is served nowadays.

But for me, the biggest change has been the changing relationship that Chinatown has had with me.

Through the eyes of a student, a professional and a Londoner, Chinatown will always be Chinatown, a home away from home.

The author is a London-based event manager. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/16/2012 page7)